Mikkel Svane, the founder, CEO and chairman of Zendesk, the web-based customer service software used by tens of thousands of organizations in 150 countries including Uber, Adobe, and Pinterest, joined us to answer our questions about his newly released book “Startupland: How Three Guys Risked Everything to Turn an Idea into a Global Business“, which is already available at all bookstores and online booksellers.
FinSMEs: Why did you feel the need to write the book?
Mikkel: I wanted an opportunity to chronicle our journey from three 30 something-year-old guys working out of a Copenhagen loft, to a billion-dollar technology company in Silicon Valley. In the book, there are some great stories about how to build a product, how to raise money from VCs, and how to survive an IPO road show. But ultimately, it’s a book to remember where Zendesk came from – and a few pieces of advice I’ve learned along the way for those who dream to some day build something from nothing for themselves. There is no greater privilege than truly finding and trying what you’re best at and succeeding at it.
FinSMEs: What’s “Startupland”?
Mikkel: Startupland the book, is the story of the unexpected difficulties, the unplanned occurrences, and the debates and decisions that happened in the earliest days of building Zendesk. It’s also a story of inspiration and optimism, and an account of what you gain when you give up what you are expected to do and chart your own direction.
FinSMEs: What’s the critical passages when you understood a viable business before and a global business could be created?
Mikkel: When we first launched, we won quite a few customers almost immediately, and they found us from all over the world. The very first was an Irish company, Cubic Telecom. The second customer was a chain of gas and convenience stores in Texas, and we also had a content management company in New Zealand. Even though they all seemed like different businesses, they all needed a service like ours. We soon realized that the product that we built was part of a new generation of tools for a new generation of businesses on the internet. The product that we had built had universal reach and was helpful for businesses all around the world. This was an exciting time for us and it was then, that we realized all of the exciting opportunities that were ahead.
FinSMEs: In the book you speak extensively about vc. what are the lessons…in the raising and in the relationship phases?
1. The relationship that you have with a VC is like a marriage. You want to be able to expose yourself 100% to them – be truly vulnerable. You want them to be able to look you in the eye and tell you that they love you – and say it so that you believe them.
2. You need to be sure you share the same values. Building a startup together is like having a baby together – and both people need to be in it for the long haul. The guiding values that you share will help you navigate through the ups and downs of your entrepreneurial journey. And there will be many.
3. Each stage of your life has different VC needs. Your teenage life needs a different investor than your golden years does. But that’s ok. A good VC will understand up to what point they add value.
FinSMEs: You also speak about lost innocence… What do you mean?
Mikkel: What I mean by that is that I realized that making it in Silicon Valley is not just about letting the best product win. Ultimately it is all about winning the order, closing the deal. It’s about the money. Our young (and sometimes naive) idealism that the “best product” would always win took a bit of a beating. I came to realize it was also about the total execution, and that there seemed to be no wrong tactic when it comes to winning the customer.
FinSMEs: Four pieces of advice to young colleagues…?
Mikkel: Looking back at the 7-year journey of Zendesk so far, these are the three pieces of advice I would share:
1. Choose to build your company in a place where you are supported and inspired. Starting in Copenhagen gave us time to really focus on building the initial product, but once we came to a place the embraces startups we were even to take it so much farther.
2. Be humble and act in ways that people can actually relate to. We try to do that in our product, and in the way we do business inside and outside the company.
3. Care about your customers, employees, investors, and community. It’s the only way to build a lasting–and fulfilling–business and life. We’ve been blessed to have our headquarters in a part of San Francisco where we’re active in the community through volunteering and activities, and we’ve brought that spirit to our offices worldwide. It’s transformed our culture and helps broaden the perspective for everyone at Zendesk.
4. Bonus: Boring is sexy. Pick an area of an industry that is overlooked, and pick a problem to solve that might be perceived as boring. Many companies have had success with this (i.e. Dropbox, Amazon, etc.)
FinSMEs: Honestly, do you still remember where you come from?
Mikkel: When we think about where we came from, we always remember that we founded this company for our customers. They showed us that building genuine relationships matter. The belief that the best product would be worth nothing without the right relationships continues to guide our culture everyday.